Purging the content marketing clichés - with Michael Brenner of NewsCred

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed February 12, 2015
Some things were bugging me about CMOs and their approach to content. I turned to Michael Brenner of NewsCred, who pushed the discussion beyond content marketing clichés.

Have you ever had a chip on your shoulder that wasn't particularly helpful? That's the case for me and how CMOs have structured their marketing departments. So I penned a (yet-to-be-published) rant on how CMOs are screwing up the shift from marketing to media, and sent it in a very half-baked form to Michael Brenner of NewsCred.

I had known of Brenner through his time at SAP, but he came back on my radar based on the provocatively-titled Why I Bet My Career on Content Marketing. Brenner nailed the current predicament/opportunity:

I believe content marketing is no longer a question, but an imperative for every brand – large and small, across every industry, in B2B and for consumer brands as well. The reason is because all of us are now firmly in control of our content experiences. We opt-in to the content we want to watch, read, share and binge on. We opt out of the ads we don’t want and will not accept interruptions to the content experiences we want to consume or share.

He went on to cite stats that should terrify those in "marketing blast" mode, and prescribed the solution: "In today’s always-on, hyper-connected world, the only option for brands to connect with their audiences is to create, publish and share stories people love."

Fine, but how do you do that? Well, Brenner jumped headlong into that particular rabbit hole: he not only staked his career on content, he left SAP for the upstart NewsCred, a content publishing/marketplace/analytics platform that intends to change content marketing in the enterprise.

Brenner was a good sport about my raggedy-edged CMO rant, and responded with some (much more) level-headed views on the CMO dilemma. This inspired us to shoot two videocasts, How Should CMOs Face the Content Challenge, and the (longer) part two segment. The discussions had some zingers, which I'll share in two blog installments. For part one, I'll break out some content marketing truths.

Why content marketing? Because marketing is broken

Brenner revealed that the state of marketing today was a huge factor in joining NewsCred:

The reason I made that bet on a startup marketing technology company is because I believe that marketing is broken essentially. I don't believe we market like the year we're in, to coin a phrase from Gary Vaynerchuk. One tag line that we ran around with at SAP was,  'Let's start attracting the audience we want to reach instead of buying it.'... You see the amount of TV advertising we skip.

You see the amount of direct mail we throw in the trash... 90% of executives said they will never take a cold call from anyone - for any reason. .01% of ad arounds are going to get a click, and who the heck knows who's clicking on it. We're counting successful marketing in the margins. Clearly it's not a sustainable approach.

"There is no ROI on content marketing" - wrong

Brenner gets pestered about the "ROI on content" a lot. When I pressed him on it, he gave me a "pithy" answer, which, pithy or not, is hard to argue with:

My pithy comment is that content marketing is infinitely more trackable than marketing overall. Content is a trackable medium delivered in digital channels that returns digital signals, allowing us to see who we're reaching, how they're engaging and whether they're converting. Seth Godin has this great quote, "Content marketing is all the marketing that's left," because A, it's trackable and B, it's really publishing the stuff our audience is looking for, instead of what we're trying to do now.

Brenner cited a B2C example:

Julie Fleischer from Kraft - her role is data and content. She also has advertising budgets at Kraft. Her analysis showed that content marketing is four times more effective than even their most targeted digital advertising and banner ads. No  4% or 40%, but 4 times more effective.

To track the ROI of content, Brenner advises to calculate ROI as an equation, with three variables:

  • How much did it cost to create the content?
  • Utilization - did the content reach the specific audience it was intended for?
  • The effectiveness of the content from a traffic/engagement standpoint

For the utilization criteria, Brenner cautions: "Every piece of content that gets created and doesn't reach any audience is complete waste - stop creating the crap that no one wants." As for the effectiveness, that's the "vanity metrics" we typically measure, including click-throughs and page views. But Brenner sees less value in tracking that until you have measurements in place for the first two.

You don't need works of artistic brilliance to produce effective content

I put Brenner on the spot by essentially saying, "If companies are competing for attention with the Game of Thrones, how can their content be effective?" I also tried to goad him into an argument with Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher, who has consistently argued that companies can't become full-fledged media producers. Brenner politely sidestepped my attempts to get him into a throwdown with Foremski. He addressed both points by explaining how brands can succeed with content:

Content marketing is not about trying to become the New York Times, it's simply trying to answer earlier stage questions that customers (and potential customers) are looking for. It's funny, we did an analysis at SAP on who the influencers are on topics like big data and cloud computing. There was this guy Jon Reed - don't know if you've heard of him. His content was part of our competition in the space of cloud computing.

It's exactly to your point: can we create content as good as the influencers in our space? The answer is: we've got to try. We have information, we have expertise. We can help educate our audiences. Are we going to become as good as CIO.com? Probably not, but can we be helpful to our audience? Absolutely, and I think that's the difference. Are we trying to become real publishers? No, we're just trying to be helpful to an audience.

To fix your content, fix your culture

Given how many companies are struggle with content, what advice would Brenner offer the CMO in transition? He pointed directly to culture:

The biggest mistake we see is something that only the CMO or even the CEO can help with, and that's culture. The brands that are successful are the ones that put their customer first. They're the ones that make their mission to help their audience - not just by selling product,  but by helping them to solve a problem. It's like getting back to the genesis of why they exist.

We talk about brand purpose... The companies that are successful are the ones that understand their core purpose - not from a sustainability or a feel-good, hippie-dippie perspective, but truly from a view of why that company exists, who they serve and for what purpose. The brands that understand that  could pull their content strategy straight out of their mission statement.. It starts with a cultural bias towards helping their customers. Some companies have it, some companies are still pushing products like it's 1935. That's the core difference we see with companies that get it, and companies that don't.

The future of content marketing is personal

Brenner is trying to see around a few corners at NewsCred. When I asked how they plan to change  content marketing at the enterprise level, he pointed back to personalization - not in terms of targeting audience segments, but directly to individuals:

Where we're going is to deliver the content that people want, when they want it, and where they want it. You talked about CRM and how marketing automation systemscan track the content journey for the customers in the database that we already know about. Where we're headed is: when Jon Reed comes to the NewsCred website and shares one of our blog posts, we're going to be able to know the content journey that you're traveling. We're really getting deep into understanding what we're doing with content on a personal level, so that we can better target and inform the audiences that we're trying to reach.

Final thought

It will be interesting to see where that level personalization takes us. Moving beyond one-size-fits-all newsletter subscriptions to dynamically-served content is one example of a change that would make content more relevant - and less annoying. Personalization has its pitfalls also, but that's another discussion. In the meantime, Brenner had some good stuff on CMO dilemmas; I'll get to that next week.

Note: I also released our conversation as part of my Busting the Omnichannel podcast series - you can check that on iTunes also.

Image credit: Internet addiction © Sergey Nivens - Fotolia.com
Disclosure: diginomica has no financial ties with NewsCred or Michael Brenner. Brenner's former employer, SAP, is a diginomica premier partner as of this writing.

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